On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘Israelis’

Six Days in June . . . Fifty Years Later

Jewish conversation in Israel and North America is understandably focused this month on lessons learned from the war fought in early June 50 years ago. One cannot but feel immense gratitude for the victory that saved Israel from the imminent destruction that had threatened in the weeks leading up to the conflict. There is cause for joy beyond measure at the extraordinary achievements made possible by Israel’s triumph, both inside the State and in Jewish communities worldwide. Questions abound on what might have been: opportunities missed, internal Jewish divisions that have deepened rather than healed, the huge cost exacted by a half-century of occupation. Many dreams from 1967 remain unfulfilled in 2017. Above and beneath all these, there is hope that the war Israel won so long ago will finally lead to peace, a hope accompanied by resolve that the immense good accomplished over the years in Israel, by Israel, and for Israel shall not, God forbid, be for naught. We need to nourish that hope and resolve, both in Israel and in North America, lest we find ourselves, at the war’s 60th anniversary, with an end to the conflict still not in sight.

I was a teenager in 1967, drawn to Israel even before my first visit by the dynamism that the Six-Day War had immediately loosened. I was compelled as well by a vision for Israeli society lifted right out of the Book of Deuteronomy. Israel would be just, generous, tolerant, forward-looking. I wanted somehow to be part of that; the future of the State became inseparable from the one that I imagined for myself. “All this is not a parable and not a dream,” we sang with Naomi Shemer. “It is as true as the light of noon. All this will come to pass tomorrow, if not today. And if not tomorrow, then the day after.”

The Israel I encountered firsthand in the 1970s was remarkably confident about its future, despite the widespread suffering and shock caused by the Yom Kippur War. One walked the narrow alleys of the Old City without fear, eating hummus and visiting holy places alongside Israelis who for years had yearned to take that walk as they fought off repeated incursions from enemies across the borders. It was not hard for a young Jew from the Diaspora to grasp the awe and wonder on Israeli faces as together we stood before the Western Wall. I spent many hours in its vicinity looking up at the Temple Mount and out toward the Dead Sea, happily breathing in the “mountain air as clear as wine” and bathing in Jerusalem’s golden light. The prophet Isaiah had stood here some 2,600 years earlier and proclaimed, “Holy, holy, holy . . .  the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” One could envision that happening, in this awesome place where faithful Jews shared the streets with faithful Christians and Muslims. I felt about all of Israel the way Naomi Shemer sang to Jerusalem: the “smallest of the youngest of [its] children.”

It was not a time or place for modest aspirations. Gush Emunim soon began to push its agenda of West Bank settlement in the name of bringing the Messiah. Other Israelis hotly debated which parts of the conquered territories Israel should and should not return in exchange for peace, none doubting that peace would come if only their preferred plan were executed. It was a heady time—the most exciting I can remember—and then Sadat miraculously came to Jerusalem, and Menachem Begin agreed (10 years after 1967) to return Sinai to Egypt in exchange for peace. It seemed things might just work out the way Naomi Shemer and her country had imagined.

Israelis have been treated in recent weeks to a fascinating exchange between Micha Goodman, a well-known philosopher and educator, and Ehud Barak, former general, prime minister, and defense minister.   Goodman has written a book entitled Catch-67 (a play on the name of Joseph Heller’s novel), which argues that Israel today finds itself trapped. The “right” maintains, correctly in Goodman’s view, that to surrender the West Bank in present circumstances would be to take an unacceptable risk to the country’s physical survival. The “left” counters, correctly in Goodman’s view, that not to surrender the West Bank soon would be to take an unacceptable risk to the country’s moral survival as a democratic Jewish state. Goodman sees symmetry between the two positions, which Barak denies in a long and respectful review. Israel is strong enough militarily to take careful, calculated risks for peace, including withdrawal from the occupied territories. To which Goodman replies that most Israelis do not agree either with him or with the “right” but instead, lacking “ideological clarity,” “labor under the nuanced complexity of reality.”

I confess that I too lack a clear vision of the way forward for Israel, as do most North American Jews of my acquaintance. One of the infuriating things about the BDS movement and its Jewish sympathizers is their blithe dismissal of moral, historical, and political complexity.  The absence of peace and justice in the Middle East is entirely Israel’s fault, they maintain; all that is needed for peace and justice to prevail is for Israel to give back the territories and accept Palestinian demands.  Extremists on the “right” seem to me equally unhelpful (and dangerous) when it comes to dreaming a future for Israel, as if several million Palestinians will voluntarily leave their homeland or give up their aspirations for a state of their own—particularly when they witness close-up the spectacular success of the Jewish return to our homeland and the establishment there of a sovereign Jewish state. Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, spoke for me when he said recently: “We cannot discuss the result of the Six-Day War as one conclusion or a one-dimensional result. It is like anything else in this country. It’s complicated.” Lapid celebrates the “unification of Jerusalem” but insists that, “promised the right security measures—we have no interest in ruling 2.9 million Palestinians . . . we need to separate from this idea.”

I am grateful for moderate and pragmatic voices that suggest ways of breaking the current stalemate. Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, has urged new initiatives (as yet unspecified) “to bring peace to Jerusalem. To grow within her an Israeli hope . . . It is not enough that the city is united if its people are still divided.” Two hundred former generals and heads of intelligence services have joined a group called Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) that recently issued a set of detailed proposals for unilateral Israeli actions that they believe would simultaneously improve conditions in the West Bank, enhance Israeli security, and leave the door open for a future agreement (in a way that expanded settlement on the West Bank does not). President Trump’s remarks during his recent visit left Israelis perplexed about the future course of American policy, but according to some commentators, they bore the promise of welcome movement to a peace process that for years has seemed stuck.

The most potent antagonist to constructive thought about the next 50 years of Israel’s history may well be fatalism about the chance for peace and therefore about Israel’s future. One hears more and more of it these days both in North America and in Israel. Those of us committed to the Zionist project and the well-being of the Jewish people must do all we can at this moment to keep hope alive.

I believe that hope must be nourished in and by both communities.  Diaspora Jews have an essential role to play in such efforts. That too was a lesson I learned from the 1967 war and its aftermath. As a teenager in Philadelphia, I marveled at friends of my parents who gave all the money they could to Israel in 1967 and then again in 1973, lest another tragedy befall the Jewish people so soon after the Holocaust; in the years following I was stirred by peers who either made aliyah or devoted themselves heart and soul to promoting Israel’s welfare.  Riding Egged busses the length and breadth of the country, I marveled at the strong connection I felt to Jews with physiognomies and native languages very different from any I had ever known. I bore responsibilities toward them, I realized, just as my parents had believed. Like me, my fellow passengers had made their way to Israel.   They too celebrated Shabbat and Passover, felt the tug of Jewish history, and were grateful for the soldiers sitting beside us with Uzis on their laps, protection against enemies who wanted us dead or elsewhere. My graduate studies at Hebrew University taught me that there were only two viable strategies for Jewish life in the modern period, neither without risks: sovereignty in a homeland of our own and strong minority communities in a Diaspora democracy. One immediate benefit of Israel’s victory in 1967 was a resurgence of pride among Jews everywhere that for a while resulted in increased identification with Jewish communities and with Israel.

One hears more and more voices in our community that say, or act as if, they want Israel to prosper but don’t much care what happens there—and one hears prominent Israeli voices that say, or act as if, they do not care what Diaspora Jews like us think or do where Israel is concerned. It has become more urgent than ever that Jews in North America talk and listen to Israeli Jews about the future of our people, and vice versa; it is no less important that those of us who do not live in Israel talk and listen to one another civilly—defying the polarized tenor of the times—about our shared passion and divergent visions for the State we care about so much. There is profound ignorance about Israel among the vast majority of North American Jews, and comparable ignorance about the North American community among Israelis. Myths abound on both sides. Knowledge is in short supply. Strident voices seek to shut down conversation at a time when all Jews more than ever must be heard and brought to the table.

For at the end of the day, Israel is about far more than politics to Jews.  Politics is the means by which we think and argue about the meaning of Jewish existence, in this period of history so unlike anything the world has ever experienced. Arguments about Israel are ultimately about the survival and thriving of the Jewish people and of Judaism. Jews in North America cannot be bystanders to debate conducted in the name of the Jewish people, all the more when all sides invoke Judaism, Torah, God—commitments we share with all our hearts. I take comfort, 50 years after the 1967 war, from the fact that no one back then, in Israel or in North America, “religious” or “secular,” “left” or “right,” even came close to imagining the complex situation “on the ground” that we confront today. This should strengthen our resolve that—despite widespread inability to imagine a way out of the current impasse—such a way will be found, so that by the 60th anniversary of the conflict things will be different.

This is not a parable or a dream, I believe, but a necessity—one I am confident will come to pass.

Response to the Presbyterian Divestment from Israel

Lovers of irony might savor the fact that the vote by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three US companies doing business in Israel came exactly a week after news broke of the kidnapping—apparently by Hamas terrorists pledged to the destruction of Israel—of three teenage yeshiva students on the West Bank. It came at the very same time that a rival Islamic terrorist faction, likewise pledged to the destruction of Israel, was sweeping through Iraq in the wake of its capture of Mosul, leaving death, destruction, and untold cruelty in its path. Some might savor such irony, but irony requires distance, dispassion, the equanimity of a club chair by a fireplace. And that is not what most of us—Jew or Gentile—are feeling these days, as the sacrifice of countless Americans in Iraq seems for naught, the latest chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has ended with no progress toward peace, and the lives of three kids who could have been ours hang in the balance. I’d love a little irony now. Instead, eyes open to the world, nerves on edge, heart open to those teenagers and the suffering on so many sides this week, my feelings are a mixture of sadness, pain, and acute worry for Israel, for the Middle East, for the world.

The Presbyterian vote is a minor rather than a major addition to that mix. In the larger scheme of things, I doubt it will have much effect, but it certainly did not help matters. I can understand why people who care about peace between Israelis and Palestinians are frustrated right now, after years of a peace process that seems to go nowhere. I get why they feel driven to drastic action intended to accomplish what John Kerry and numerous negotiators before him could not. However, I believe that we must not let hope die: not now, not ever. That’s why I am prepared to assume that the majority of the Presbyterians who voted for divestment did so without malice. It is worth noting that the decision to divest was made by a narrow margin of 310–303 after what the New York Times called a “passionate debate”; the Presbyterian community is clearly divided on this issue.

Most, and even the best-intentioned, individuals sometimes do things that justly prompt reproach, because they should have done better. In a noteworthy sin of omission, the Presbyterian Assembly chose not to withdraw from their website the study guide issued by a Presbyterian advocacy group earlier this year, one-sided in the extreme, which is cleverly entitled Zionism Unsettled. Failure to disavow the study guide leads one reasonably to infer that some of those who voted for divestment would probably be just as happy to see the Jewish State disappear, in the hope of “un-settling” Jews not only from the West Bank but from Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. Zionism includes the entire enterprise of Israel. Regardless, delegates supporting the divestment resolution—perhaps the majority—fell victim to two mistakes that, to my mind, are glaring and reprehensible.

First, they apparently believed that their vote to divest was fully compatible with the other principles affirmed in that very same resolution: Israel’s right to exist, “positive investment” in endeavors that advance the cause of peace, and careful distinction between their action and the global boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement. That distinction is not credible, and cannot be maintained; witness press coverage of the event and the glee of opponents of Israel who feel their cause has been boosted by the Presbyterian decision. All of us, at times, particularly when faced with difficult choices, want to have things both ways. We try to separate acts from consequences, or use the same words others use, but want them to mean something different. In this case, divestment is not supposed to mean divestment. Sanctions against Israel—and only against Israel—are not meant to signal particular animus against Israel, despite the fact that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has not proposed, let alone adopted, sanctions against China, say, or Russia, or Iran—all nations widely accused of human rights abuses that far exceed those leveled against Israel.

The second problem I have with the resolution is its accompanying declaration of love for the Jewish people. “In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.” This despite the pleadings of rabbis and organizations who have long worked closely with the Presbyterian Church; despite awareness by the delegates that many thoughtful Jews of their acquaintance—including many who, like me, are not proponents of West Bank settlement—firmly opposed their resolution; despite knowledge by the assembly that it is condescending in the extreme to act against the stated wishes of people you profess to love, claiming to serve their best interests better than they can, and then dress up your behavior in the language of love. I certainly don’t feel loved by this resolution, any more than Jews felt loved when Christians over the centuries forcibly converted them, or when any group tells Jews, or the only sovereign Jewish State we have—one set up because our people believed that homecoming to Zion was needed not just for our fulfillment but for our very survival—that they know better than we do what is right for us, and are prepared to help us see the light by causing us suffering.

I imagine that the “us” in that sentence causes the Presbyterian Church (USA), and others too, a good deal of consternation. As I’ve just declared, I have issues with West Bank settlement, and certainly expanded West Bank settlement that has the effect and perhaps the intention of precluding a two-state solution. Many other Jews, in Israel and America, share my concerns. What is more, for religious Jews like me, the meaning of life is bound up in commitment to God’s commandments, pursuit of justice, and the increase of compassion in the world. We cannot deny that Israel is causing suffering to Palestinians right now (as Palestinians continue to inflict suffering on Israel). So why do I group “us” Jews together collectively? Why is it important not to separate Jews like me, of whom the divestors apparently approve, from Israel’s government and settlers, of whom they do not?

This is where Jews need to remind the Presbyterian Church (USA) that our covenant established and requires not only a faith but a people, a people called to follow God’s direction not only in the private sphere of home and sanctuary but in the public sphere of business, policymaking, and the court system. Zionism marks a return to a Land—and a State—to which Jewish hopes and obligations have been attached since our very beginnings. Modern life has in many cases driven a wedge between Jewish faith (always a complex matter, not given to easy dogmatic formulation) and Jewish life. But even the most “secular” of Israelis know they are caught up in forces too large for comprehension inside conventional empirical categories. History and transcendence intrude whether we like it or not, one reason that many who call themselves “secular” are now exploring new and vibrant connections to the traditions of their ancestors. Whether personally “religious” or not, Israeli Jews—and many of us here in America—know there cannot be Judaism in our day without Jews—and no Jews without some form of Judaism. We know too that there can be no survival or flourishing for Jews in our day without Israel. The Jewish people requires Israel. Judaism requires Israel.

Does that mean it requires the retention of the entire West Bank? I hope not. The commitment to democracy that is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence means that I will always strive for a just settlement with Palestinians that allows them to have a homeland alongside mine, and allows Israeli Jews to preserve the democratic character of the State of Israel. Has the Israeli government in my view made mistakes, including serious ones, in its pursuit of peace? I think it has, following in the footsteps of previous Israeli governments that have made mistakes on this score, not to mention US governments no less culpable of error. I hope that Israeli voters will use the ballot box to pressure their elected leaders to move more decisively toward peace and be more resolute in the defense of democracy. But I doubt the worldwide BDS movement, singling out Jews once again with the stigma of sin, and now joined by the Presbyterian Church (USA), will do anything to advance the cause of peace. It strikes a blow against mutual respect among religious communities in America, not a blow for mutual respect among national communities in Israel or Palestine.

 

Coming Closer to Israel

/ 10 Tevet 5772

I read the responses to my December 21st blog posting on the topic, “Distancing from Israel,” in the wake of a spate of news reports from Israel that graphically illustrated one piece of the problem we face in trying to overcome such distancing. It’s upsetting to many of us here in North America to see pictures of Haredi kids dressed by their parents with yellow Jewish stars in order to liken Israeli police enforcing Israeli law to Nazi murderers of Jews. It’s hard to watch settler extremists torch mosques and break into army bases to protest government policies and law-enforcement that they do not like. It’s painful to Jews brought up to be proud of the Jewish role in America’s civil rights struggle to see images of Jews in Israel separating men and women on buses on religious grounds or hurling abuse at a little girl because she does not dress as they think she should. And sometimes—often—it’s very hard to find images of Israel in our media that counter those. Where are the positive stories that do make us swell with pride? Read the rest of this entry »